Neanderthal climate preferences and tolerances: the need for a better chronology

Rupert Housley, Philip Allsworth-Jones, Christopher Burbidge, Nick McCave, David Pyle, David Sanderson, Oliver Bazely, Simon Crowhurst, T van Andel, 2008

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Rupert Housley, Philip Allsworth-Jones, Christopher Burbidge, Nick McCave, David Pyle, David Sanderson, Oliver Bazely, Simon Crowhurst, T van Andel (2008) Neanderthal climate preferences and tolerances: the need for a better chronology [data-set]. York: Archaeology Data Service [distributor] https://doi.org/10.5284/1000035

Overview

The objective of this project was to determine whether the present chronological data for late Mousterian sites in Europe, which suggests Neanderthals occupied the cooler more climatically-variable later part of Oxygen Isotope Stage 3 (42-26 ka cal BP) rather than the warmer earlier (58-42 ka cal BP) interval, are biasing our perception of Neanderthal populations by making them appear more cold-adapted than the incoming anatomically modern humans.

The project focused on the part of the Neanderthal world that would have experienced the most continental climate - European Russia and the Ukraine north and east of the Black Sea. For it is in this region that any temperature preferences would be most discernible. The areas selected comprised the foothills of the northwest Caucasus, the steppe of southern Russia, and the foothills in the south of the Crimean peninsula.

A series of cross-validated non-14C chronological methodologies (OSL, TL, palaeomagnetic intensity, and tephrostratigraphy) were applied to a series of late Middle Palaeolithic site assemblages, to materials including burnt stone, windblown sediment and volcanic microtephra. A small number of additional 14C measurements were made on sites where the existing 14C chronology needed improvement. The results were correlated with local environmental proxies (in this instance pollen and particle size data), to permit a better understanding of Neanderthal climatic tolerances.

By collaborating with researchers in the Institute for the History of Material Culture in St Petersburg, Russia, and the Crimean Branch of the Institute of Archaeology, Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, the project was able to sample sixteen Middle Palaeolithic and Early Upper Palaeolithic sites. Associated archaeological, environmental and chronometric information was collated and is summarised.

A small number of sites yielded multiple volcanic microtephra horizons that provide valuable markers to wider regional correlations. Comparison of new OSL and TL age determinations and existing mostly 14C based chronologies suggests the relationship between the methodologies is complicated, most likely influenced by factors such as site sedimentology and lithology, or fluctuations in atmospheric 14C concentration associated with the Laschamp magnetic event horizon.

A pattern emerges that may indicate the earliest Upper Palaeolithic in the Russian steppe is substantially earlier than the latest Middle Palaeolithic in the northern Black Sea coastal zone. This could suggest that anatomically modern humans expanded into the steppe north of the Black Sea in the warmer earlier part of OIS3 and it was not until the cooler latter stages of OIS3 that competition with Neanderthals for territories and resources developed. Limited temporal overlap of the hominin groups with geographical separation appears to be the message coming from the data produced by this project.

Researched by:

Principal Investigator - Dr Rupert Housley, Glasgow University
Co-investigators - Professor Nick McCave, Cambridge University; Dr David Sanderson, SUERC
Collaborators - Dr David Pyle, Oxford University; Mr Simon Crowhurst, Cambridge University; Professor Tjeerd van Andel, Cambridge University
PDRA - Dr Philip Allsworth-Jones, Glasgow University; Dr Christopher Burbidge, SUERC
Research Student: Mr Oliver Bazely

Funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)